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75Profile: Issues Teach. Prof. Dev., Vol. 23 No. 1, Jan-Jun, 2021. ISSN 1657-0790 (printed) 2256-5760 (online). Bogotá, Colombia. Pages 75-88

Analysis of MA Students’ Writing in English Language Teaching:
A Systemic Functional Linguistic Approach

Análisis de la escritura de estudiantes de maestría en la enseñanza del inglés:
un enfoque lingüístico sistémico funcional

Vicky Ariza-Pinzón1
Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Puebla, Mexico

This study explores the ways in which master thesis writers position their research in the field of English
language teaching in a context where academic literacies are still a developing field. From a social semiotic
perspective, this paper aims to identify the resources writers use to represent their object of study and
provide a context and justification for research. The analysis focuses on the ideational and textual
metafunctions to account for patterns of meanings in seven introductory chapters of master theses in
English teacher education. The results reveal a set of interconnected genres—descriptions of the object
of study, definitions, and personal exemplum—that build a shared experience with the reader as well as
the persuasive purpose of the text.

Keywords: academic writing, genre, research strategies, systemic functional linguistics, thesis writing

Este estudio explora las formas en que los escritores de maestría posicionan su investigación en el área
de la enseñanza del inglés, en un contexto en el que la literacidad académica sigue siendo un campo
en desarrollo. Desde una perspectiva semiótica social, este documento tiene como objetivo identificar
los recursos que los escritores usan para representar el objeto de estudio y proporcionar un contexto y
una justificación para su investigación. El análisis se centra en las metafunciones ideacional y textual
para dar cuenta de los patrones de significado en siete capítulos introductorios de tesis de maestría en la
enseñanza de lenguas. Los resultados revelan un conjunto de géneros interconectados —descripciones
del objeto de estudio, definiciones y ejemplos personales— que conforman una experiencia compartida
con el lector, así como el propósito persuasivo del texto.

Palabras clave: escritura académica, escritura de tesis, estrategias en la investigación, género, lingüística
sistémico funcional

Vicky Ariza-Pinzón  · Email:
This article is based on the dissertation completed by Ariza-Pinzón (2019).

How to cite this article (apa, 7th ed.): Ariza-Pinzón, V. (2021). Analysis of ma students’ writing in English language teaching: A systemic
functional linguistic approach. Profile: Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 23(1), 75–88.

This article was received on October 1, 2019 and accepted on August 4, 2020.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0
International License. Consultation is possible at

Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Departamento de Lenguas Extranjeras76


Writing a master dissertation constitutes a big

challenge at the end of any educational program when
students engage independently in their first research
project. In this stage, students are expected not only to
draw from their personal and professional experience
to find a topic for research but also, they are expected
to “negotiate some of their prior literacy experiences
associated with academic and non-academic domains
and the academic writing requirements of their current
degree program” (Kaufhold, 2017, p. 84). In addition to
the academic and institutional requirements, students
are expected to know the disciplinary conventions of the
genre (Autrey & Carter, 2015). These considerations—
the relationship between the institution, the literacy
practices, and the disciplinary conventions—define
master thesis writing as a critical social space in which
students have to develop a purposeful academic text
on their way towards becoming part of a professional

However, more often than not, students fail to
recognize the social nature of master thesis writing—in
terms of the organization of knowledge and the organi-
zation of intellectual and educational practices within
a context (Christie & Maton, 2011). The difficulties
to recognize thesis writing as a social practice seem
to derive from at least three aspects identified in the
context of Latin America, particularly in Mexico. First,
there is a generalized view that considers writing as a
set of skills students are supposed to come equipped
with to deal with the reading and writing tasks at the
university. Students who struggle with writing assign-
ments are labeled as having a deficit that needs to be
“fixed” (Lea & Street, 1998). It goes without saying
that this view disregards the broader social context
of writing practices. Focusing only on technicalities
makes thesis writers lose sight of the institutional
context, the conventions of the written text, and the
relationships with their immediate readers. This may
create scenarios of inequality and disadvantage when

negotiating legitimate participation in a professional

Second, there is a wide variety of theoretical trends,
influences, and emerging epistemologies for literacy
studies in Latin America that make it difficult to nomi-
nalize what writing entails (Ávila-Reyes, 2017). Given
a context in which the study of writing is a developing
field, the predominance of “heterogeneous” theoretical
trends causes contradictory uses of epistemological
concepts (Navarro, 2019). As a result, the random use
of epistemological trends creates a tension among
educators’ differing perspectives of literacy. For example,
some educators regard writing as a complex social
interaction influenced by cultural, social, political, and
economic factors; others still see writing as an orderly
skill which is set unvarying and transferable across
contexts (De Silva Joyce & Feez, 2016).

Finally, it is likely that having differing views on
writing has an effect on how writing pedagogy is enacted
within the classroom. Preconceived ideas about literacy
and the lack of explicit instruction of writing in higher
education programs obscures the particularities of the
thesis genre and the subtleties of disciplinary discourse
for students to write more effectively. I argue that in order
to understand master thesis writing as a social practice,
it is necessary to address issues of epistemology, identity,
and power relations within a broader social context. The
purpose of this paper is to address that gap. First, I intend
to identify the linguistic resources that novice writers
use to open a legitimate space for their research in the
area of English language teaching (elt) from a systemic
functional linguistics (sfl) perspective. Second, I aim
to explore the semiotic potential for meaning making
in a critical social space where English is used as an
academic language for disciplinary writing.

Master Thesis Writing
as a Social Practice
Writing as a social practice is defined as an inter-

play of practices, literacy events, and texts. According

77Profile: Issues Teach. Prof. Dev., Vol. 23 No. 1, Jan-Jun, 2021. ISSN 1657-0790 (printed) 2256-5760 (online). Bogotá, Colombia. Pages 75-88

Analysis of MA Students’ Writing in English Language Teaching: A Systemic Functional Linguistic Approach

to Barton and Hamilton (2010) literacy practices are
related to different domains of life, as they are shaped
by social institutions and power relations as well as by
epistemology (Lea & Street, 1998). The literacy events
are situations that reveal particular forms of written
language that are used to represent values, attitudes,
and feelings in a text. Practices, events, and texts are
essential to comprehending writing practices as a holistic
social phenomenon for they are built and shaped in
a community and in relation to other people that go
beyond individual acts. Following, I discuss some social
practices that illustrate master thesis writing as a social

The first aspect that defines thesis writing as a social
practice is the use of disciplinary knowledge. The fact
that writing occurs in socially situated practices (Lave
& Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) demands particular ways
to build knowledge in disciplinary spaces such as elt.
In other words, writers generally write for someone
and what they write is shaped by a set of rules and
conventions that are taken for granted. In this way, what
is possible to say and how it must be said is determined
by the discursive conventions of the discipline and its
members (Ivaniĉ, 1998). These conventions, represented
in oral and written discourse, give an account of the
social tensions that the participants face in order to have
a sense of habitual permanence in a given community
(Fairclough, 1989). However, this “common sense”—
the way of acting and thinking of a community in
disciplinary spaces—is not evident for thesis writers,
which places them at disadvantage.

The second aspect for considering writing as a
social practice is related to the interpersonal or power
relationships that underlie thesis writing in a second
language. Typically, in the context of elt, undergradu-
ate or masters’ students write their theses for a very
small audience and under the guidance of a supervisor.
However, the practices that occur around the genre
development are occluded (Autrey & Carter, 2015;
Swales, 1996); and it is difficult to know exactly how

this genre is learned and taught (Paré et al., 2009).
However, it is to be expected, as Coffin et al. (2003)
point out, that the relationship between the supervi-
sor and supervisees exerts some influence on the way
writing takes place in higher education, particularly in
a crucial document such as the thesis. It is likely that
under these circumstances, readers feel they have the
authority, as established members of a community,
to serve as gatekeepers (Lillis & Curry, 2010), and to
determine what constitutes “appropriate academic writ-
ing” according to the conventions of the disciplines or
academic communities. It is precisely the unawareness
of these academic conventions that puts membership
into a professional community at risk.

Finally, the third aspect to consider writing as a social
practice involves issues of identity shaping. Those may
occur in the process of becoming part of a professional
community. In addition to learning to communicate
in particular ways, thesis writers also have to learn to
“be” particular types of people, and forge an identity
as academics, professors, or as researchers (Coffin et
al., 2003). Thesis writing, then, is a legitimate form
of incursion into a disciplinary community but the
path for insertion into that community is not explicit.
In sum, master thesis writing as a social practice—as
suggested in this paper—involves the understanding of
the complex interplay of disciplinary knowledge, inter-
personal relationships, and identity shaping. However,
its study has received little attention in the context of
Latin America, particularly in Mexico.

Academic literacies and sfl offer a framework to
address that gap because of their focus on practices in
context and texts in context (Coffin & Donohue, 2012).
These contrasting perspectives complement each other
to explore the social and linguistic practices entailed in
the introductory chapter of the master thesis in the area
of elt, which is the objective of this paper. In addition
to that, it seeks to explore the semiotic potential for
thesis writing development in a context where English
is used as an academic language. The following research

Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Departamento de Lenguas Extranjeras78


questions orientate the objectives of this study: (1) What
are the linguistic resources instantiated in the introduc-
tory chapter of master theses in the area of elt? and
(2) What practices are common for thesis writers to
create a legitimate space for research? The rest of the
article presents the theoretical underpinnings of both
frameworks and how they support the methodological
proposal of this study.

Academic Literacies
As has already been mentioned, the concept of lit-

eracy means different things to different people. Lea and
Street (1998) have conceptualized a range of theoretical
trends in three writing models: the skills model, the
socialization model, and the academic literacies model
(Lea & Street, 1998, 2006; Street, 1984). The skills model is
related to structural views of language as well as cognitive
learning views. In this model, writing is considered as
an instrumental ability and as a transposition from oral
language to written language. The inability to transfer
writing skills from one context to another is considered
a deficit as concerns students. The second model is that
of academic socialization, where students are exposed
to specific genres of the community to which they must
integrate. According to Lea and Street (2006), it is through
an acculturation process where “students acquire the ways
of talking, writing, thinking, and using literacy” from
the members of a professional community (p. 369). In
this vision, it is assumed that the genres possess certain
stability and that students will acquire those genres from
simple exposition. Even though this model considers
contextual factors for the development of writing, the
superficial vision of language as a form of transparent
representation “fails to address the depth of language,
literacy and discourse issues involved in the institutional
production and representation of meaning” (Lea &
Street, 1998, p. 158).

Finally, the academic literacy model considers literacy
as socially constructed under situations of power relations,
epistemology, and identity (Lea & Street, 1998). This

implies looking at academic practices in higher education
as events shaped by the configuration of the social space
in which they occur and by power relations. In this way,
each space “is concerned with meaning making, identity,
power, and authority, and foregrounds the institutional
nature of what counts as knowledge in any particular
academic context” (Lea & Street, 2006, p. 369).

Clearly, there is a critical stance in the academic
literacies paradigm; one that focuses on practices to
enhance transformation of social inequalities (Coffin
& Donohue, 2012). That view is shared with sfl where
writing is considered as a social and goal-oriented
practice with a specific purpose in a broad social con-
text (Martin, 1997). This text-based perspective aims
to “teach the students about whole texts as the main
unit of purposeful language use and about varieties of
language to use in different contexts” (De Silva Joyce
& Feez, 2016, p. 24). Emphasis is given to the types of
genres involved in the master thesis writing as well as
its development for which a theory of language that
considers social and contextual factors is necessary.

A Functional Model of Language
sfl offers an explanatory model beyond the descrip-

tive nature of language. This model allows decoding
the meaning systems that regulate human behavior
(Hasan, 2001; Martin, 2001). In other words, when we
use the language, we are able to choose from a variety
of linguistic resources that make it possible to explore
the relationships among the text, context, register, and
genre to reveal the meaning of social practices. This
linguistic framework deconstructs these relationships
in such a way that it allows to capture semiotic systems
that are not perceptible to the naked eye and allows
one to critically evaluate the ideologies that emerge
in the text.

In order to know more about the social context in
which a particular text is used, sfl provides a multilayer
description of the clause in light of three metafunctions.
The ideational, which represents the experience of the

79Profile: Issues Teach. Prof. Dev., Vol. 23 No. 1, Jan-Jun, 2021. ISSN 1657-0790 (printed) 2256-5760 (online). Bogotá, Colombia. Pages 75-88

Analysis of MA Students’ Writing in English Language Teaching: A Systemic Functional Linguistic Approach

world (field); the interpersonal, which expresses the
relationship between the participants in a communica-
tive event and how language organizes social interaction
(tenor); and the textual, which gives value to the text
and its components to achieve a coherent discourse
(mode). Together, field, tenor and mode represent the
register of the text (Martin & Rose, 2007). In this sense,
we can say that the metafunctional nature of language
allows semiotic activity and the choice of meanings;
and the creation of meaning is a semiotic act (Halliday
& Matthiessen, 2014).

Master thesis writing in elt is a case in point of a
semiotic act. When we write the introductory chapters,
these metafunctions are expressed simultaneously in
the text and each contains three layers of meaning
namely phonology and graphology, lexico-grammar
and discourse semantics (Martin, 1992; Martin & Rose,
2007). These layers of meaning—also known as strata—
display realizations of language at the level of sounds
and letters, at the level of the clause and at the level of
the whole text. Phonology and graphology are used to
represent an oral or written expression (Martin, 1992).
The lexico-grammar layer focuses on the meaning of
clauses, while the discursive semantics focuses on the
holistic meaning of the text. Essentially, the integration
of the discourse semantics and the lexico-grammar
strata as an analytical framework offer the means for
the study of the generic structure of the introductory
chapters of a master thesis.

Summing up, the analytical tools of sfl bring to
the surface the subtleties of written language. It also
distinguishes the subtleties of the academic language
used in the disciplines; most importantly, it shows how
these are shaped according to the context in which
they occur. As Martin (2008) points out: “A model
of this kind provides a social semiotic perspective on
knowledge structure; and, knowledge is by and large
realized through, construed by, and over time recon-
strued through ideational meaning via the modalities
of language and image” (p. 34).

A Functional Perspective of a
Micro Genre: Thesis Introduction
This study focuses on the micro genre of the introduc-

tion which belongs to a larger genre—the whole thesis.
Traditionally, Swales’ (1990) cars model (Creating A
Research Space) is widely used for article introduc-
tions. The model has three moves to perform various
rhetorical functions whose purpose is to establish the
research topic and justify the need for more research.
When writing the introductory chapter of the master
thesis, the writer is asked to follow those moves in order
to persuade the reader that his or her research is signifi-
cant, that there is room for new knowledge, and that a
contribution can be made to it. Although moves in the
writing of research articles are a useful pedagogical tool,
it lacks a functional explanation of language which limits
the potential to distinguish subtle differences between
disciplines, discourses, or genres (Hood, 2010). Swales
himself recognizes the need of a model that provides
frameworks for the study of social action (Swales, 2009).

A second limitation is that there is no consensus
in the interpretation of the moves because there are
no explicit lexico-grammar patterns that indicate what
move it is. The validation of the arguments in the cars
model is based more on the experience and intuition
of the experienced reader rather than on a theory of
language. This causes the particularities of the genre to
be occluded before the eyes of the inexperienced writer.

From a more functional vision, Hood (2010) pro-
poses a more transparent model, capable of revealing
the ways in which knowledge and academic arguments
are socially constructed in discourse, through discourse,
and through dialogue with other knowledge and other
knowers. In other words, a functional model is intended
to achieve an understanding of what it means to create
meaning in the academic sense and to recognize what
literacy practices are privileged in a context in which
new knowledge is being built. Those patterns of meaning
can be viewed from three perspectives: “The relation-
ships that are enacted by language, the experiences

Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Departamento de Lenguas Extranjeras80


that are construed by it and the role language plays in
the context” (Rose & Martin, 2012, p. 22).

Hood (2010) formulates the notion of research
warrant as a discursive context where writers not only
state their claims but are able to support them before
the objectivity and criticism of their readers. The social
purpose of the research warrant is to justify the need of
the research in a given area of study. In this particular
case, identifying the distinctive structure of introductions
of master theses allows certain purposes to be achieved
such as legitimizing research in the area of elt.

In this view, chapter one is typically composed of
a series of genres, each playing a role in the process of
legitimizing a contribution to knowledge by establishing
a research warrant (Hood, 2011). The author mentions
that writing an introduction involves building an evalu-
ative representation of one or more fields of knowledge,
with the purpose of persuading a community of readers
of the legitimacy of the research project. This represents
a double challenge for novice writers in the area of elt
because, in addition to mastering aspects of genre and
register, they have to negotiate knowledge construction
in a second language. This becomes relevant since writing
constitutes a social field where experience is constructed
in a dynamic way that goes from everyday knowledge
to the synthetic and elaborated way of written grammar
(Halliday, 1993). The following sections describe the
methodological design to address these issues.

In order to investigate the complexity of literacy

practices from a social perspective this qualitative research
follows a textual and ethnographic orientation (De Silva
Joyce & Feez, 2016). In that regard, sfl and academic
literacies explore the social and linguistic practices
entailed in the introduction chapter of a master thesis.
As an analytical method, sfl would be able to bring to
the surface the regulatory principles that underlie the
invisible practices of reading and writing in higher educa-
tion that unconsciously regulate our behavior (Martin,

2001). It is expected that a linguistic analysis of thesis
writing shows the social positioning of the speaker, the
visible features of the text, and the discourse that links
certain texts in different ways (Hasan, 2001). On their
part, academic literacies allow the interpretation of those
features to identify what practices are more evident in the
process of thesis writing. This, in order to find answers
to my two research questions (see section Master Thesis
Writing as a Social Practice).

This study was carried out in the School of Lan-

guages of a public university in Central Mexico. The
school offers an ma program in elt. Master students
are generally in-service teachers from different contexts
and backgrounds. Towards the end of the program,
they have to write their thesis in English as part of
the graduation requirements. During the two-year
program students write different types of academic
papers; however, the program does not offer any explicit
instruction nor writing courses in the curricula. As an
immersed participant in the field (Edwards, 2002), I
am well aware of the practices of the community, their
legitimate participants and newcomers, such as the
thesis writers. However, awareness about the text is
another basic principle for literacy research (Eggins,
1994); one that allows establishing a distance from the
research field and separate any interpersonal relationship
between the writer and the researcher and maintain
confidentiality, ethics, and objectivity (Creswell, 2012).

Corpus Selection
The corpus of this research consists of seven intro-

ductory chapters of master theses in the program of
elt, one per year during the period of 2010 to 2016.
Its selection considered three main criteria. The first
one had to do with the identification of the five most
prolific supervisors as thesis directors in five cohorts
of the program. The purpose was not only to identify
consistency in the patterns of the thesis genre, but also

81Profile: Issues Teach. Prof. Dev., Vol. 23 No. 1, Jan-Jun, 2021. ISSN 1657-0790 (printed) 2256-5760 (online). Bogotá, Colombia. Pages 75-88

Analysis of MA Students’ Writing in English Language Teaching: A Systemic Functional Linguistic Approach

to analyze the writing conventions of this community
by analyzing its members’ supervision practices. The
second was related to the institutional validation of
the thesis and the degree completion process. In other
words, those theses had been legitimized and validated
through an oral and written examination process. The
intention was not to judge whether a thesis was “good”
or “bad.” Rather, the objective was to identify the writing
conventions widely accepted by the community. Finally,
the last criteria focused on the whole text and its subtle
variations in response to social contexts in terms of
function and meaning (Eggins, 1994).

Quantitatively, the corpus represented 9% of the total
sample, which may not be statistically representative.
However, from a qualitative standpoint, a small corpus
gives meaning to the analysis and it is relevant as
the analysis focuses on the instance and not on the
language system, as referred to in the following quote:
“Instantiation involves the way we observe metastability
in social semiotic systems” (Martin & Rose, 2007, p. 310).
In other words, there is an inertia between instantiation
and the semiotic system. Table 1 shows the title of the
theses of the corpus, the graduation year, and the code
assigned to each introductory chapter.

Table 1. Titles of Master Theses in the Period 2010–2016 Which Constitutes the Analyzed Corpus

Number Year Title

1 Intro_2010
Teachers reflections on teaching English to children through content-based

2 Intro_2011
Supervision in higher education research contexts: Understanding expert research

3 Intro_2012 Exploring the effects of an elt ma program on teachers’ professional development

4 Intro_2013
Promoting project-based learning in higher education learners to enhance their
performance in learning a foreign language

5 Intro_2014
Experiential grammatical metaphor in English and Spanish linguistic research
articles: A comparative study

6 Intro_2015
English teachers’ journals: From description to reflection and development in
Mexican public basic education

7 Intro_2016
Dyslexia and children’s English language learning in a Mexican elementary school:
A crowdsourced intervention study

Data …

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